Conference Presentation on Zappa in Portugal

As stated in an earlier blog, I have been working on another Zappa paper for a conference in Portugal. Well, the paper is now finished and although it represents only one third of the research, it is an interesting start. The next stage involves investigating the legalities of the ZFT stance, and attempting to understand why the cover bands feel the need to play his music – watch this space.

Title: An Autocratic Approach to Music Copyright?: The means through which Frank Zappa translated and adapted both his own and other composers’ music

Author: Dr Paul Carr

Institution: University Of Glamorgan



Since the death of Frank Zappa in 1993, there has been an ongoing legal battle between the Zappa Family Trust (ZFT) and the so called ‘tribute bands’ that are determined to continue translating his music through live and recorded mediums. It could be argued that these ensembles effectively not only pay direct homage to Zappa’s legacy by interpreting his music in numerous innovative ways, but also keep his memory alive by interfacing with both his long standing audience, and with a younger generation who may not be aware of his music. The most famous of the rock based ensembles is entitled Zappa Plays Zappa and has the unusual credit of being ‘legally’ sanctified to perform his music live. This legality is no coincidence, as the band is headed by Zappa’s eldest son Dweezil and features the ‘Vault Master’ responsible for compiling the legal recordings heralding from the ZFT – Joe Travers on drums. This paper intends to contribute to the small number of academic documents pertaining to Zappa by investigating the means through which he translated and adapted both his own and other composers’ work over. This research was carried out principally through musicological and content analysis of a range of Zappa and related recordings, which were consequently contextualized by key texts. This is the first stage of a two part research process, which will subsequently include an investigation into the various philosophical, legal and industrial factors behind why the ZFT are so intent on selectively prohibiting performances of his music and how/why such a diverse range of tribute bands and ensembles are so intent on continuing to experiment with Zappa’s music despite the threat of legal challenges

By the time of his untimely Death in 1993 at the age of 52, Frank Zappa had already compiled over 57  ‘official’ albums in the 27 year period between his inaugural recording Freak Out (1966) and his epitaph – Civilization Phase III (1993). This figure does not include the numerous official and unofficial bootleg recordings that have saturated the market, many of which continue to be released by the ZFT Vaulternative and Zappa labels. Zappa’s extraordinary creative output is equally matched by incredible stylistic diversity, with many of his albums containing influences as eclectic as rock, jazz, neo classical, do – wop, reggae and musique concrète. Although Zappa’s portfolio has to be considered one of the most ‘original’ in the Rock canon, it is apparent that he consciously and freely incorporated elements of his own and more importantly other composers’ music throughout his career, in both live and recorded environments. In a philosophical gesture he self entitled ‘The Big Note’, he commented as early as 1968

All the material in the albums is organically related and if I had all the master tapes and I could take a razor blade and cut them apart and put it together again in a different order, it still would make one piece of music you can listen too” (Slaven, 2002: 121).

This borrowing process continued throughout Zappa’s career, where he would refer to his earlier works in a variety of explicit and subliminal ways, at times actually including previously recorded materials into ‘new’ compositions. When commenting on what could be regarded as a self plagiarist process he stated

When a novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? (Zappa, 1989: 139).

This analogy is an interesting one, as this process was consistently incorporated in the numerous translations/re arrangements he made of his work. Indeed Zappa developed the terminology ‘Object’ and ‘Project’ when attempting to differentiate between the completed work of art and the constant processes he used to redefine it. These ‘conceptual continuity’ gestures were not only used to translate and evolve innovative new recorded music, but can be found adapted throughout his entire creative output, ranging from album covers, to videos, to films, to live performance. Examples of this process range from the pervasive incorporation of Patricia The Dog on album covers such as Them or Us (1984), Francesco Zappa (1984), and The Perfect Stranger (1984), which are all essentially artistic adaptations of characters portrayed in compositions such as “Dirty Love” (Over-night Sensation (1973)), “Stinkfoot” (Apostrophe (1974)), “The Poodle Lecture” (FZ:OZ (1976)) and “Cheepnis” (Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)). This canine conceptual continuity is also mirrored with other pervasive thematic areas such as vegetables[1] , religion[2], politics[3] and sex[4], gestures that assist the unified idiolect of Zappa’s life’s work.

The techniques Zappa incorporated to translate his musical ideas included simply replacing specific instruments and remixing factors he was unhappy with. For example Cruising With Ruben and Jets (1968) and We’re Only In It For The Money (1968)) were both remixed in 1984 and 1986 respectively to include new bass, percussion and in the case of the former, vocal parts. Although these new works were often not popular with Zappa’s fans, the original recordings are problematic to find, indeed becoming rare collectors items until recent technology assisted greater access via peer to peer servers. Obviously recognizing that the ‘source text’ is potentially considered more authentic by many fans recently prompted the ZFT to release a 40th anniversary addition of Zappa’s first album Freak Out (1966), which was also not available in its original format due to either music industry logistics or censorship[5]. Zappa was also an advocate of skillfully using studio technology to synchronically remix the best elements of live performances of his music compiled over many years. The most pervasive examples of this process can be found on the ironically entitled six part You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series (1988 – 1992), but can be found on earlier recordings such as the “King Kong” variations (Uncle Meat 1969) and “Little House I Used To Live In” (Burnt Weeny Sandwich 1970). These recordings were essentially an opportunity for Zappa to display both his studio skills and his allegiance to conceptual continuity by combining the best parts of live and studio performances portfolio to date, effectively producing a utopian ‘live’ performance that transcended both time and space. Regarding the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series, Zappa was explicit that these performances were “not chronological” and proceeded to confirm that “any band from any year can be (and often is) edited to the performance of any other band from any other year – sometimes in the middle of a song” (Zappa 1991).

In addition to Zappa’s use of these diachronic vertical based studio techniques to develop virtual performances, he also employed a more synchronic based methodology that he entitled Xenochrony[6]. This technique were incorporated to horizontally fuse often unrelated instrument tracks from otherwise incongruent recordings. Perhaps the most well known implementation of Xenochrony can be heard on Joe’s Garage (1979), where all of the guitar solos aside from “Watermelon in Easter Hay” are transported from other recordings. After initially experimenting with the technique on “The Blimp” when producing Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica (1969), this technique was to become a pervasive device to formulate and translate compositions.  Zappa was known to prefer both the sound of his guitar and his actual performance when playing live, and this is probably the reason why he incorporated the technique so freely on Joe’s Garage. However, he was obviously also interested in the means by which virtual performances could be engineered to produce results not possible by placing musicians in the same space and time. An indicative example of this is the polyrhythmic interplay between Terry Bozzio (drums) and Patrick O’Hearn (bass) on the track “Rubber Shirt” (Sheik Yerbouti 1979). Close examination reveals that the conversation taking place between the two instrumentalists is indeed fabricated by Zappa superimposing a common time bass part recorded live in Gothenburg, Sweden with studio drums based on a 11/4 time signature. The interplay is a fascinating example of two musicians ‘communicating’ simultaneously over the boundaries of time and space, quoting Zappa . “All of the sensitive, interesting interplay between the bass and drums never actually happened…” (Zappa 1979 Taken from Album notes). This ‘happening’ of course does occur in the mind of the listener, who would find it impossible to ascertain how the artistic results were encouraged if not for Zappa’s transparency. Another dimension of this practice can be found on “Friendly Little Finger” (Zoot Allures 1976) where Zappa combines a basic guitar and bass track from an improvised solo recorded at Hofstra University in 1975 with drums derived from “The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution” (Sleep Dirt 1979). Interestingly, this recording ends with a chorus of the traditional hymn “Bringing In The Sheaves” (Minor & Shaw 1880), and as discussed later serves as an indicative example of Zappa not only translating his own work, but that of others.

In addition to contextualizing his portfolio in time and space with individual xenochronic tracks, artistic adaptations of songs, pervasive thematic subject matters, and compiled cuts of specific performances, Zappa also regularly refined his compositions on a more musicological level as part of the object/project philosophy. Indeed his portfolio is littered with examples of compositions progressively developing over the entire time he recorded music.  Although precise detail of this practice is beyond the scope of this paper, the examples below are intended to portray his wider philosophy. “Bogus Pomp” (London Symphony Orchestra Vol !&2 1987) is an indicative example of a piece that kept the same title but developed musically over time, – amalgamating transcribed elements from The Mothers Of Invention’s 1968 concert at the Royal Albert Hall[7], numerous selected pieces from his controversial film – 200 motels (1971)[8], and the “Holiday in Berlin, Full Blown” motif from Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1968). Prior to the London Symphony Orchestra recording, the piece was also recorded as “Bogus Pomp” on Orchestral Favorites (1976), but in much shortened format and without the first three sections of the later more mature version. A similar process can also be found in numerous other pieces such as “Duke Of Prunes” and “Greggery Peckary”, with pieces such as “A Pound For A Brown On The Bus” and “Legend Of The Golden Arches”  from Uncle Meat (1969)  being obvious variations on the same melodic, rhythmic and harmonic material. Indeed this compositional material is noted by Zappa as dating back to 1957 or 58 when he graduated from high school. Originally written for string quartet, he believed it to be “played by just about every one of the touring bands in one version or another (Zappa 1993). Close examination reveals that the material[9] is recorded on numerous albums post Uncle Meat, including early recordings featured on You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 5 (1992), Electric Aunt Jemima (1992)[10], and Ahead Of Their Time (1993)[11], through to later versions on Zappa In New York (1976), You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol.4 (1991)[12] and The Yellow Shark (1993)[13]. Although Zappa does not provide a reason for the name change outlined above, like many of his pieces the work provides an anthropological account of his band’s exploits on the road, this time programmatically depicting a bet between Jimmy Carl Black and Bunk Gardiner regarding the formers intention to ‘moon’ through the window of the touring bus while on tour in London. It is proposed that the title change more accurately depicts both the West Coast cultural heritage of this activity[14] with a more universally accepted synecdoche of England[15]. This process of refining the ‘project’  by incorporating elements of earlier ‘objects’ to form more ‘mature’ works includes both studio technology and live rearrangements of this material, and Zappa’s pervasive use of this methodology unquestionably verifies David Walley’s assertion that he was the  “ultimate cut and paste man” (Walley 1972: 8).

As indicated above, Zappa would often refer to earlier works simply for practical reasons, and at other times utilize conceptual continuity as an opportunity to make a more profound statement. “Catholic Girls” from Joe’s Garage is an indicative example of how he sarcastically attacked the establishment for earlier confrontations by inserting (at 3.17) the melodic line from the highly controversial “Jewish Princess” (Sheik Yerbouti 1979). This conceptual continuity cue evokes a ironic nod toward the only piece in Zappa’s portfolio ever to attract an official complaint (From the Anti Defamation League). Most importantly, this gesture is a clear example of Zappa implementing his first amendment rights, and this is a  pervasive factor throughout his entire canon, accentuating the irony of the prohibitive stance the ZFT are taking regarding other musicians who want to do the same. In the same song Zappa refers more subliminally to examples of music from outside his canon, by referring to Frank Sinatra’s “All The Way” (00.45 and 2.27), “Calabrian Tarrentella” (3.22 and 3.30) and “La donna è mobile” (from Verdi’s Rigoletto) (3.43). The insertion of these quotations are very frivolous in nature, essentially distorting the texts original meaning from serious to humorous, and in the case of the latter from ‘high’ culture to ‘low’ comedy. This plagiaristic practice was something practiced regularly on other occasions, and it was not unusual for Zappa to either subliminally place other composers’ music in his work, or accentuate the ‘light entertainment’ of otherwise ‘series’ pieces by superimposing frivolity over the original text. Examples of the former include quotations of Stravinsky in “Amnestia Vivace”[16], “Soft Cell Conclusion”[17], “Status Back Baby”[18] (Absolutely Free 1967) and “Fountain Of Love”[19] (Cruising With Ruben And The Jets 1868), and Holst in “Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” [20] (Absolutely Free 1967). This subliminal referencing is sometimes not musical in nature but as seen above and in works such as “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask” (Weasels Ripped My Flesh 1970), can be purely textual. This lowering of the perceived high culture of such works is perhaps accentuated more on pieces such as “Mozart Ballet” (The Weasel Acetate 1969), when Ian Underwood performs the great composer’s piano sonata in Bb, while the rest of Zappa’s band performs a “grotesque parody of the art of ballet dancing”. The audience plainly find the band’s physical and verbal antics amusing, with Don Preston assuming the mad scientist “Dom Dewild” guise that can also be found on The Mothers Of Invention 1968 performance at The Royal Albert Hall (Ahead Of Their Time 1993 and the Uncle Meat (1987) film. Aside from Sinatra’s “All The Way”, all of these cross references are of course ‘legal’, as the copyright on these works have long since expired. However, Zappa’s inclusion of more popular music related texts in his work such as “Sheery” by The Four Seasons[21] and the pervasive “Louie Louie”[22] (Berry 1955) does indicate that avoiding litigation was not high on his agenda. Indeed Zappa was quoting music from the popular music canon well before the formation of the Mothers Of Invention, with pieces such as Brian Lord and the Midnighters “The Big Surfer” and The Penguins “Memories Of Del Monte” (20 Years Of Frank Zappa – The Cucamonga Era 1981) quoting “Yankie Doodle Went To Town” (Unknown) and “I Wish I Was In Dixie” (Emmett 1859) in the former, and the latter cross referencing “Earth Angel (When Will You Be Mine” (The Penguins 1954) and “Nite Owl” (Tony Allen and the Champs 1955). When the comedic intentions of Zappa’s work is taken into account it is apparent that he can be considered as part of a novelty music tradition, with artists such as Victor Borge and Allan Sherman[23] both humorously distorting classical music in light hearted ways. Although he does not quote him as an influence, Borge’s approach in particular resonates with Zappa’s, utilizing ‘audience participation activities[24], stage antics and humorous narrative[25] all while performing pieces such as Liszt’s “Leibestraum” (Comedy in Music) 1995), Pastiches of Mozart Opera’s[26] and discussing the uses of Chopin’s Minute Waltz as an egg timer[27]. Zappa does quote American satirist Spike Jones as a major influence (Zappa 1989: 172), and in addition to the combination of brilliant musicianship and cutting humor it appears that the pervasive Zappa ‘snort’ which appears throughout his portfolio on pieces such as “Lonely Little Girl”, “Idiot Bastard Son” (We’re Only in it for The Money 1967), “Moggio” (The Man From Utopia 1983), “You’re Just Insulting Me, Aren’t You?” and “Cold Light Generation” (Civilization Phase 3 1993) was originally implemented on Spike Jones pieces such as “Old Black Magic” and “Blue Danube” (Spike Jones, (Not) Your Standard Spike Jones Collection 2006)[28]. Indeed this sound can not only be found on Zappa’s last recording (Civilization Phase 3 1993), but also on his pre mothers work, with pieces such as “How’s Your Bird” and “Letters From Jeepers” both including the timbre[29] (20 Years of Frank Zappa The Cucamonga Era. 1981). Although the influence can not be directly attributed to Jones, Zappa’s tendency to instruct his brass and woodwind players to incorporate an exaggerated tone adds to the humorous dimension of Zappa’s music, with pieces such as “Holiday in Berlin Fully Blown”[30] (Burnt Weeny Sandwich 1970) and “Cletus Awreetus Awrightus” (The Grand Wazzo 1973) having close parallels to Jones’, in addition to later comedy pieces such as “Shaving Cream”[31] and “Charley Brown”[32]. Indeed it could be argued that Zappa is in many ways part of the novelty music tradition, with pieces such as “Brotherly Love” (Freak Out 1966) and “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary” (Studio Tan 1978) bearing close compositional and timbre influences to mainstream comedy music pieces “Mother in Law”[33] and “Witch Doctor”[34]. Also Zappa’s pre Mothers of Invention work on novelty pieces such as “Hey Nelda” and “Surf Along” (20 Years Of Frank Zappa – The Cucamonga Era 1981) can be considered ‘authentic’ novelty pieces, with no musical complexities. These pieces also appear to forge a crucial link to Zappa’s later work with Flo and Eddie, with other pre Mothers of Invention novelty pieces such as “Dear Jeepers” and “Letters From Jeepers” (20 Years Of Frank Zappa – The Cucamonga Era 1981) having very similar comedic voices to “Bwana Dic” and in particular “Do You Like My New Car” (Fillmore East: June 1971 1971).

It is important to verify that Zappa’s influences were not only founded on musical foundations, but close scrutiny of his theatrical characters such as the narrator in Thing Fish (1984) reveals not only a similar name to Kingfish from the long running Amos and Andy American sitcom  (1928 – 1960), but also an almost identical vocal timbre. In the same work the “Mammy Nuns” could also be regarded as a satire of the characters in Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (1959), while “Harry and Rhonda” can be heard to fulfill a similar function to Brad and Janet in Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show (1973). It is also worth noting that Thing Fish incorporates a range of ‘backing tracks’ from Zappa’s back or future catalogue, and essentially adapts them into a different medium[35]. The fact that he entitles the pieces differently is indicative of his mindset – these pieces are apparently considered independent works of art, incongruent from their original source, despite the obvious similarities.

All of these examples are indicative of Zappa’s reliance on the re-use of material from both his own and others’ catalogues in a range of innovative ways. As outlined in a earlier paper by Carr and Hand, the practice of self plagiarism “is in fact continuing a long tradition established by composers such as Monteverdi, (incorporating material from L’Orfeo in the 1610 Vespers) and  Prokoviev, whose 3rd Symphony is heavily influenced by his opera Fiery Angel.” Carr & Hand 2008). It is proposed that Zappa is not only influenced  by a vast array of identifiable cultural signifiers, but that without the unrestricted access to these influences his highly ‘original’ idiolect would not have emerged.  This paper will therefore be contextualized by further research, which will focus upon how/why tribute bands are so intent on performing Zappa’s music despite ongoing legal challenges from the ZFT, followed by an account of the philosophical and legal status of the ZFT stance.

[1] For example “The Duke Of Prunes”  and “Call Any Vegetable” (Absolutely Free 1967), “Mr Green Genes” (Uncle Meat 1969), “Peaches and Regalia” (Hot Rats 1969)

[2] Jewish Princess (Sheik Yerbouti 1979), Catholic Girls (Joe’s Garage 1979), “Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk (Broadway The Hard Way 1988), “The Meet Shall Inherit Nothing (You Are What You Is 1981)

[3] “Dickies Such An Arsehole (Broadway The Hard Way 1988), “Welcome To The United States” (The Yellow Shark 1992), “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” (Absolutely Free 1967)

[4] “Sex” (Man From Utopia 1983 ), G Spot Tornado (Jazz From Hell 1976), “I Have Been In You” (Sheik Yerbouti 1979)

[5] For example the first two lines of “Help I’m A Rock” and “It Can’t Happen Here” were removed because they were deemed to be drug references.

[6] Meaning ‘Alien Time’.

[7] Entitled “Prologue” from Ahead Of Their Time (1993)), “The Rejected Mexican Pope Leaves The Stage”, “Undaunted, the Band Plays On”.

[8] “Semi-fraudulent/Direct-From-Hollywood Overture.” , “Touring Can Make You Crazy”, “Redneck Eats”, “Centreville”, “This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich (Prologue)”, “This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich (Reprise)”, “The Sealed Tuna Bolero”, “Dance Of  The Just Plain Folks”

[9] Names as either “Pound For A Brown (On The Bus)” or “Pound For A Brown”.

[10] Recorded in Denver, May 3rd 1968

[11] Recorded at The Royal Albert Hall, October 1968

[12] Recorded in 1978

[13] Recorded in 1992

[14] Colloquially entitled “browning”.

[15] “Pound” as opposed to “Golden Arches”.

[16] The “Nocturne” from his Firebird Suite, while the backing vocal line is reminiscent of  the opening bassoon line from The Rite Of Spring.

[17] The piece ends with the introduction of Stravinsky’s “March” from A Soldiers Tale.

[18] The opening sequence of Petrouchka is quoted in the middle section.

[19] The backing vocals towards the end outline the opening melody of The Rite Of Spring.

[20] The start of the saxophone solo quotes The Bringer Of Jollity” from The Planets Suite.

[21] Found at the end of “Wowie Zowie” (Freak Out 1966)

[22] This piece can be found quoted numerous times throughout Zappa’s career. Indicative examples include “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet (Freak Out 1966) at around 7:30; “Plastic People” (Absolutely Free 1967), which is obviously based on the song harmonically and melodically; “Florentine Pogen” (One Size Fits All 1975), at around 3:07; “Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk” (Broadway the Hardway 1989) at around 8:15; “Welcome to the United States” (Yellow Shark 1993), at around 5:30.

[23] Refer to “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah – A Letter From Camp” (Rhino Hi-Five 2006) (based on Pontichelli’s Dance of the Hours) and Hungarian Goulash No.5 (My Son The Nut 1963) (based on Brahams’ Hungarian Dance No. 5) for indicative examples.

[24] For example “Comedy in Music (Part 2)” from Live.

[25] For example his “Piano Concerto Number 2” discusses Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no.2 in humorous ways (Comedy in Music 1995)

[26] In “A Mozart Opera by Borge” (Comedy in Music 1995)

[27] Refer to for more details

[28] Towards the end of both pieces.

[29] The sound is heard throughout the first piece and at around 0.49 of the latter.

[30] From around 1:08

[31] By The Hustlers (On Loony Tunes 1976

[32] By The Coasters (On Loony Tunes 1976)

[33] By Ernie K Doe (On Loony Tunes 1976).  Note the close melodic similarities and bass timbre.

[34] By David Seville (On Loony Tunes 1976). Note the similarities to the voice of Greggery Peccary.

[35] For example “Galoot Up-Date” uses the backing track of “ The Blue Light (Tinsel Town Rebellion 1981), “Mudd Club” is directly imported from You Are What You Is (1983), while the synclavier based “That Evil Prince” was to eventually emerge in orchestral form as “Amnerika” on Zappa’s final recording Civilization Phase III (1995)

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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One Response to Conference Presentation on Zappa in Portugal

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